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First Person: 'When Jews Were Funny' and Alan Zweig's Style of Personal Filmmaking

By Alan Zweig | Indiewire April 29, 2014 at 9:29AM

Director Alan Zweig explains why he made the documentary "When Jews Were Funny" and how it's different than his previous personal documentaries.
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Comedian Shecky Green in "When Jews Were Funny"
Comedian Shecky Green in "When Jews Were Funny"

In his latest film, "When Jews Were Funny," documentary filmmaker Alan Zweig surveys the history of Jewish comedy, from the early days of Borsht belt to the present interviewing Jewish comics such as Gilbert Godfried, Howie Mandel and Judy Gold. Below he explains how the film is both his most and least personal documentary -- and how it differs from his previous work.

A friend who saw my latest documentary “When Jews Were Funny” described it to me this way: "You get the people you interview to tell your story." I think he was a little more eloquent.  But I had never heard anyone articulate my style of personal filmmaking that way and from that moment on, that became my way of describing that and other films I've made in a similar fashion.  I mention it here because it helps explain, to me at least, why this was the most difficult film to make of all my six feature length docs. 

"I always like to say to people that I could have made one film about being a chronically single, bitter, negative record collector."

It's supposed to get easier but I feel like all that happens is as you get better, you just end up challenging yourself more. Or maybe that's just the hope.

There's a point, usually half way between my first assembly and the locked picture where I often feel like the film is impossible, can't work out, and was a horrible idea to begin with. My friends say "You always say that" and my response is "one day I'm going to be right."

And I never felt that more acutely as I did with “When Jews Were Funny," which has turned out to be my most successful, my most widely seen and maybe even my best film. I thought nobody would get it. I thought nobody would see what I was trying to do. And to explain this, I suppose we have to say something about my three previous personal documentaries, the ones that are sometimes referred to as my "mirror trilogy."

The story of how I ended up making "Vinyl," my first documentary, and my first even vaguely successful film, is too long for this space. But the short version goes like this: I had a bit of grant money to make a fiction film about a record collector. I was well aware that most of my fiction was just thinly veiled autobiography. And some of my favorite artists such as Harvey Pekar and Charles Bukowski, operated in similar territory. So I decided to try to make a non-fiction version of the proposed film.

"When Jews Were Funny"
Toronto International Film Festival "When Jews Were Funny"

I say non-fiction only to make it clear that I didn't think, "I’m going to now become a documentary filmmaker."I simply decided that I was going to try and tell my story and the stories of others in as direct a way as I could.  But the resulting film was technically a documentary. It debuted in a documentary festival and when it was well received – at least compared to everything else I'd done in the previous 25 years – it was as if the world was saying "Do you want to switch to documentaries now?"

So I did.  It wasn't meant to be a permanent switch. But to reject this unspoken invitation seemed like it would be wrong-headed.

And I felt like my editor Chris Donaldson and I had sort of invented a way to make personal films. And I wanted to do it again. So I did. "I Curmudgeon" was about my perceived negativity.  And I did it one more time with "Lovable," which was about my chronic singlehood.

I always like to say to people that I could have made one film about being a chronically single, bitter, negative record collector. But I made three. And one of the reasons I did was because I couldn’t think of any other ideas except the things that were around me.

By the time I finished the third one though, I felt like I should try to break out and do something less overtly personal. Otherwise I might have made a version of "When Jews Were Funny" back then, five years ago. In fact, I did have a similar idea in my head, which I was calling "Sort of Jewish." Had I used that title, I might have gotten into less trouble with critics.  But had I done it back then, I certainly wouldn't have made the same film or even close.

"I figured this might be the strangest film any of them had ever seen."

Like I said, I didn’t just move on to making a film about my relationship with my Jewish upbringing because by then, I was sort of ensconced in the documentary community and I felt like I had to prove to "them" that I was more than a one-trick pony.

And in fact, I don't think it’s an exaggeration to say, that when my next film "A Hard Name," which is basically a series of interviews with seven middle-aged ex-cons, came out, a lot of people in that community had exactly the reaction I was hoping to elicit.  Which pleased me and annoyed me at the same time.

It was an artistic choice to make the films the way I made them, not a matter of limited resources. But I felt like I still had to prove that, so with my next feature doc, "15 Reasons To Live," I went way out of my usual box and made something that, at least on the surface, was 180 degrees from what I had made before. And to a great degree, that was what allowed me to return to personal filmmaking with "When Jews Were Funny" (or "WJWF").

It may sound strange to describe my choices as originating as trying to prove something but I always feel like I’m inspired more by the challenge of a particular film than by a drive to tell a particular story. However, if there were ever a film where I was driven by both, it was "WJWF," which gets us back to the film I might have made if I’d made this film five years ago.

There are three big differences between" WJWF" and my three previous personal docs and each of those aspects scared the bejeesus out of me until it won a nice prize at TIFF and I finally had it demonstrated for me that it was possible for others to see the film that I had intended to make.

The first and obvious difference is that in the three previous personal films, I appear on camera telling my own stories. That technique challenged some viewers in those previous films but on balance, I think it’s easier for a filmmaker to establish his or her role in a film if they appear on camera, rather than trying to establish a character through off-camera commentary alone.

Read More: 10 Films We're Excited to See At This Year's Hot Docs

But this was a device I’d worked on in my previous two, less overtly personal films, and it seemed like the right thing to do in "WJWF." And if I had to explain that, at the risk of contradicting myself, I’d say that I wanted the film to be less obviously personal, at least at the outset.

The second difference is perhaps the biggest one. If I had made "Sort of Jewish," I almost certainly would have interviewed the same kind of people I had interviewed in the mirror trilogy, namely people who I assumed had similar issues to my own. And by this I mean, for the most part, non-celebrities. 

There are a few minor celebrities in the first two films in the trilogy. The aforementioned Harvey Pekar is in both.  And Fran Leibowitz, Mark Eitzel, Andy Kindler and Joe Queenan are in I, Curmudgeon.  But none of them had been interviewed thousands of times, or a hundred times by Johnny Carson alone.

Or to put it more directly, in my five previous docs, I had interviewed almost exclusively people who had never been interviewed, whereas in "WJWF," I was intending to interview people who’d been interviewed hundreds of times and by interviewers more slick and professional than myself.

Maybe you’d think it would be easier to interview people who had been interviewed before.  And maybe if your style were less conversational than mine, you’d be right, I’m not sure.  Certainly it would be easier to interview showbiz veterans if all you wanted was one of their tried and true showbiz stories, because after a while that’s all they can do, or so it appeared to me.

People who have never been interviewed are not waiting for the laugh and the rim-shot after every bon mot. They don’t even know when they’ve delivered a bon mot.  And people who have never been interviewed, assuming they agree to the interview, are willing to tell you about almost anything. They don’t have an agenda. They don’t have talking points. At least that’s my experience with them.

It’s hard to get a celebrity to be real. So I had to work around that, try and make their resistance to me, as viable as any cooperation they might offer.

Why did I insist on using celebrities, minor or major, you may well ask. Well, as soon as I decided that I would look at my Jewish culture through the lens of the humor of the people, I felt like I had no choice but to use comedians, though I was more interested in talking about their roots than their showbiz careers.

It scared me. Celebrities are not like you or I, but I thought it was a gamble that could pay off if it worked.

The final big difference between this and every other personal film I’d made was that this was a subject which was, by its very nature, both very familiar and intriguing to a lot of people, which made it, for lack of a better word "a bigger target" than any film I’d ever made.

For instance, there may have been a core audience of record collectors that were automatically interested in "Vinyl," but I didn’t make the film for them and the biggest part of its ongoing cult audience, only has a passing interest in accumulating vinyl. And this is also true, in its own way, for my film about being perceived as negative or the one about being chronically single.

Nobody had any particular preconception about what a film about being negative would look like, whereas almost every Jew as well as every fan of humor, standup comedians or showbiz in general, might understandably have a preconception about a film that took on Jewish culture via Jewish humor.

I knew that if I made the kind of personal film that I’d been working on for almost 20 years, it would be a challenge for a lot of people who would be interested in this film.

Not to align myself with the avant-garde exactly, but I figured this might be the strangest film any of them had ever seen.

And that's what happened.  Why is the interviewer talking so much?" "Why is his thesis being contradicted by so many people?  Doesn’t he know they’re disproving his theory?"

The answer is that the film doesn’t have a thesis and that I like it when people disagree.  As one review said, "that’s the most Jewish thing" about the film.

To sum it up, I knew that the only way I knew to make this film was to use techniques and devices I’d been working on for 20 years. And I knew that, if I were lucky, for the first time, a large majority of the viewers would not have seen any of my previous films.

If I could have made the film a different way, I might have tried. But I only knew one way to make it.

"When Jews Were Funny" is now available on digital download and DVD. Readers can enter the code JEWISH for $1 off the digital download of the film at whenjewswerefunny.com.

Director Alan Zweig directed "Vinyl," a documentary about record collecting, before reinventing himself as personal documentarian. In 2009, his film "A Hard Name" won the Genie for best feature documentary. "When Jews Were Funny," which won the prize for Best Canadian Feature at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, is his sixth feature length documentary.

"When Jews Were Funny" is now available on digital download and DVD. Readers can enter the code JEWISH for $1 off the digital download of the film at whenjewswerefunny.com.

This article is related to: When Jews Were Funny, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries, Alan Zweig, Toronto International Film Festival